Five unanswered questions on Bergdahl

Greg Nash

Lawmakers perplexed and angered over the saga of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl have scheduled hearings to examine his odd personal history and the threat posed by Taliban militants freed from U.S. custody.

Under pressure from Republican critics, the Democratic-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a closed-door briefing Tuesday on the prisoner exchange that freed Bergdahl after five years of captivity.

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has resisted calls from Republicans to make the session an open hearing even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week it should be public. Senators will hear from seven senior administration officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

At press time Monday night, House Republicans expressed frustration following a classified briefing on Bergdahl.

The top five lingering questions about Bergdahl follow.

Did Bergdahl desert his post?

The reaction to Bergdahl’s release changed dramatically after members of his platoon went public with charges that he walked away from his remote combat post in Paktika province.

National security adviser Susan Rice told CNN last week that the administration did not have a reason to conclude he was a deserter but promised “a full and comprehensive review of what happened.”

Bergdahl had a history of walking away from his assigned station areas. He went absent without leave from a training base in California and from his base in Paktika province before returning. He was captured by the Taliban the second time he left his combat post.

Bergdahl shipped his computer and personal journal back to his parents before he disappeared, a sign that he did not plan to return, but the veracity of reports that he left a farewell note have been questioned.

Did U.S. soldiers die looking for Bergdahl?

Bergdahl’s former comrades, including his squad leader, have blamed him for the deaths of soldiers who looked for him on patrol in the months after his capture.

If true, it would give ammunition to Republican critics who say President Obama paid too high a price by trading five senior Taliban commanders housed at the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for Bergdahl’s freedom.

Hagel said he was not aware “of circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.”

A review of military logs by The New York Times concluded that two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search for Bergdahl but were killed during an attack on an outpost, not on patrol. Other soldiers died about two months after Bergdahl’s capture, after the most intensive search for him had concluded.

Why did the White House fail to alert Congress of the prisoner exchange?

Administration officials have offered various explanations for their failure to give lawmakers advance notice of the controversial prisoner swap.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough initially said Congress should have known about the exchange because administration officials had discussed it as a possibility for years.

Senior administration officials argued that Bergdahl was in poor health and therefore Obama could not risk waiting the 30 days required by the National Defense Authorization Act between informing Congress and releasing prisoners from Guantánamo. At a classified briefing last week, officials showed senators a “proof of life” video that showed Bergdahl stammering and incoherent. Some lawmakers, however, speculated that he was drugged.

Administration officials also told lawmakers they feared the Taliban would have killed Bergdahl if word had leaked from Congress of the pending trade for Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week this explanation is not credible because the Taliban would have lost a major bargaining chip by executing the American POW.

Will the White House release the video of Bergdahl and make public the dossiers of the freed Taliban leaders?

Bergdahl’s Taliban captors filmed the video in December of 2013 to offer proof to U.S. negotiators that he was still alive.

Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, has called on the administration to make the clip public.

“He looked terrible,” King told CNN, describing what he saw in the secure briefing. “And I think that video should be released at some point. He could barely talk. He couldn’t focus his eyes. He was downcast. He was thin ... I looked around the room as that video was shown, and I think it was clearly effective.” 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called on the administration to make public its files on the five freed Taliban commanders. He argues the American public deserves to know how dangerous they are.

The administration’s defenders counter the five militants had been held in U.S. military custody since 2002 and have been replaced by other Taliban commanders.

Did Bergdahl or his father attempt to make inappropriate contact with the Taliban?

Some lawmakers are demanding answers about what efforts Bergdahl or his father, Robert, made to contact the Taliban.

Bergdahl’s team leader told CNN that radio and cellphone intercepts revealed chatter about an American looking to speak to the Taliban.

Time magazine reported that Robert Bergdahl was in contact with the Taliban and commissioned an Afghan tailor to make the traditional outfit his son wore when he was handed over to American special forces.

Days before Bergdahl was released, his father posted a note on Twitter addressed to a Taliban spokesman claiming, “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay the death of every Afghan child.”

The tweet was later deleted.

“We’re dealing with a soldier that should be looked in[to] more extensively,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “There’s a lot to be answered here and there’s a lot of peculiar behavior that has gone on between the family, this soldier and his actions.”

Manchin cited Robert Bergdahl’s tweet.

“When his father puts out a statement on Twitter four days before he was released, it was very disturbing,” he said.